The main point of contention has been the use of the word “Afghan” on the cards to refer to all Afghan citizens. The word was historically synonymous with Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group. Other groups, especially the second-most-numerous Tajiks, have objected that using “Afghan” would politically benefit Pashtuns.
The debut of the IDs, which was held up for several years by ethnic disputes and technical problems, came just six months ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections. A presidential contest is due to follow next year. Ghani is expected to run for reelection, and it is unclear whether Abdullah will back his rival or run against him for a second time.
The pre-election period has been plagued by other problems, including insurgent violence and low turnout for ID-card registration, that have left many Afghans worried that credible and safe elections cannot be held this year. Fraud marred the past two elections, and the 2014 contest between Ghani and Abdullah was so discredited that the two finally agreed to share power.
In the past month, two insurgent bombing episodes rocked the capital and took more than 75 lives. On April 22, a suicide bomber on foot detonated in a crowd of people waiting to apply for their ID cards, killing 57 and wounding scores. On Monday, two back-to-back suicide bombings in a high-security zone killed 25, including nine Afghan journalists who had rushed to the scene.
With concerns growing over election security and political stability, experts are debating whether it would be worse to have another high-risk, fraud-marred election or none at all. The consensus appears to be that it would be worse to have no elections because that would leave the power-sharing executive and the legislature in a state of legal limbo and foster public disenchantment.
Still, the high-level rift over the electronic ID cards has sabotaged hopes that the creation of a foolproof voting document would lead to more credible results — and help resolve protracted fights over the size of each ethnic group, by allowing people to choose among 15 groups to identify them on their cards.
The creation of a fair, inclusive and biometrically secure card was one of the first tasks set out by the national unity government, brokered by the United States after the 2014 contest collapsed. But three years and many delays later, the fight over what information should be on the card is ongoing.
Now the contradictory positions taken by Ghani, a Pashtun, and Abdullah, who is half-Pashtun and half-Tajik but is allied with a Tajik-based party, seem likely to exacerbate the feuding that has long divided the country into regional fiefdoms led by ethnic strongmen and has prevented a more modern democratic party system from taking root.
The disagreement is also likely to further discourage people from registering, even in urban centers that in theory are safer than rural regions under insurgent control. In the first two weeks that applications for voter IDs were open last month, a little more than half a million people signed up, while the potential number of eligible voters is estimated at more than 12 million.
“This . . . may turn into an ethnic crisis, and it will be a big opportunity for those who are playing ethnic cards,” said Najib Mahmoud, a scholar of law and political science. Such a development, he said, “would be a disaster for the country.”